Opinion

Hugo Dixon

Italy could do with market pressure

Hugo Dixon
Apr 15, 2013 09:34 UTC

Italy could do with some market pressure. Rome’s bond yields are now lower than they were before February’s inconclusive election. But as the politicians scheme, the economy burns. With markets calm, there is insufficient urgency to crack on with long-needed economic and political reform.

The fall in 10-year bond yields, which were 4.3 percent on Friday compared to 4.4 percent just before the election, is attributable to two factors. First, nobody wants to bet against the European Central Bank which has promised to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. Second, the Japanese central bank’s pledge to buy gigantic quantities of bonds at home has buoyed asset prices elsewhere, including in Italy.

The backdrop to the current political crisis is starkly different to that in November 2011, when a sharp increase in bond yields created a panic which led to Silvio Berlusconi being forced out of office. Now none of the three main political blocs – Berlusconi’s centre-right group, the centre-left Democrats and Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star Movement – can govern on its own. But seven weeks have been wasted without a coalition being formed.

Action has now turned to selecting a new president to replace Giorgio Napolitano. An electoral college made up of parliamentarians and representatives from Italy’s regions will on April 18 start the process. The machinations are highly complex, as I discovered in Italy last week, and could yet unblock the situation. But there are many potential pitfalls.

The role of Italian president used to be a largely ceremonial one. But its power has grown under Napolitano who showed how the president could steer the country in a political crisis, for example by replacing Berlusconi with the unelected Mario Monti.

Cyprus deal best of a very bad job

Hugo Dixon
Mar 25, 2013 10:27 UTC

Cyprus’ economy is going to suffer terribly in the next few years. Some of that is inevitable given how bloated the banking system had become. But the disastrous handling of the crisis, especially in the past week, will make things much worse.

That said, the bailout deal that Cyprus reached with its euro zone partners in the early hours of Monday morning makes the best of an extremely bad job – both for the small Mediterranean island and its rescuers.

It establishes three important principles. First, there will be no losses for insured deposits. Last week’s aborted deal foolishly involved taxing them at 6.75 percent. Second, uninsured creditors rather than taxpayers will pay the entire cost of bailing out Cyprus’ two troubled banks – Cyprus Popular Bank (CPB) and Bank of Cyprus (BOC). Third, Cyprus’ oversized banking sector, which depended heavily on somewhat dubious Russian cash, will be slimmed down.

Markets too sanguine about Italy

Hugo Dixon
Mar 11, 2013 10:12 UTC

The markets are too sanguine about Italy. The country’s politics and economics are messed up – and there are no easy solutions. And while Rome does have the European Central Bank as a backstop, it may have to get to the brink before using it.

Investors had jitters after last month’s election result, pushing 10-year bond yields up to 4.9 percent from 4.6 percent. But by last Friday they had fallen back to 4.7 percent. Investors have convinced themselves that some political solution will be cobbled together; that, if one isn’t, it doesn’t really matter; and that, if the worst comes to the worst, the ECB will pick up the pieces by buying the country’s bonds.

Mario Draghi, the ECB president, gave some support for the latter two ideas last week. He downplayed the risks to Italy’s fiscal position by arguing that much of the country’s belt-tightening was on “automatic pilot”. He also made clear that the ECB’s bond buying plan was still available for countries that followed the rules.

Bersani may not be bad for Italy

Hugo Dixon
Dec 3, 2012 10:22 UTC

The last Italian prime minister whose surname began with a “B” – Silvio Berlusconi – was a disaster. The country’s next leader’s name is also likely to start with a “B”.

Investors want Mario Monti, the technocrat who took over from Berlusconi last year, to stay as prime minister after the election, which will probably be in March. But they are more likely to get Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the left-wing Democratic Party (PD). While there are risks, such an outcome may not be as bad as it looks – not least because Bersani has promised to continue with Monti’s policies and was one of the few reformers when Romano Prodi was prime minister in the last decade.

Trade union-backed Bersani will be the standard-bearer for the left in the coming elections after winning a decisive primary at the weekend against Matteo Renzi, the modernising mayor of Florence. His first comments were promising: he said the PD would have to tell Italians the “truth, not fairy-tales” about the country’s grave economic situation.

Battle against Grexit far from won

Hugo Dixon
Nov 26, 2012 10:15 UTC

The battle against Grexit – Greece’s exit from the euro – is far from won. Assume Athens is promised its next 44 billion euro tranche of bailout cash and some further debt relief when euro zone finance ministers reconvene on Nov. 26. Even then, the banks will still be hobbled, while another round of austerity is in the works and vested interests are rife.

It will be hard to restore confidence and, without that, there won’t be a return to growth. Meanwhile, without growth, Antonis Samaras’ fragile coalition government will fall. Alexis Tsipras’ radical left SYRIZA movement would then probably take over – plunging the country into a new hot phase of the crisis. What’s more, if investors and consumers fear such a scenario, they won’t start spending – making a continuation of the slump self-fulfilling.

Samaras, who became as prime minister in June, has been better than many feared. His strategy has been to do everything demanded of Greece by the “Troika” – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – with the aim of changing the perception that Athens cannot be trusted.

World needs healthy capitalism

Hugo Dixon
Oct 29, 2012 09:25 UTC

Last week I gave a speech on “healthy capitalism” at Oxford University. Before doing so, I tried the idea out on an academic friend of mine. He scoffed at it. For him, “healthy capitalism” was an oxymoron. Five years after the start of the world’s worst financial crisis in decades, it is easy to mock capitalism. The system ran amok – leading to debt, unemployment and shrinking economies.

But that’s precisely why the world needs healthy capitalism. Health involves vigour, well-being and resilience. Capitalism – with its basis in free enterprise and private property – can have all those qualities provided warped incentives are corrected and the culture of greed is tempered. State socialism certainly cannot. The practical alternative is to reform capitalism not throw it away.

But how should it be reformed? After the tribulations of recent years, the conventional wisdom is that the problem has been too much freedom. That, though, is a misdiagnosis. Most of the diseases that have become apparent during the crisis have been caused by a distortion of free enterprise rather than too much freedom.

Spanish circle getting hard to square

Hugo Dixon
Oct 15, 2012 09:20 UTC

The art of politics is about squaring circles. In the euro crisis, this means pushing ahead with painful but necessary reforms while hanging onto power.

In Spain, where I spent part of last week, these circles are getting harder to square. Mariano Rajoy isn’t at any immediate risk of losing power. His 10-month old government has also taken important steps to reform the economy – cleaning up banks, liberalising the labour market and reining in government spending.

But the recession is deepening, the prime minister is a poor communicator and his political capital has plummeted. Madrid will also find it harder than thought to access help from its euro zone partners.

Euro crisis is race against time

Hugo Dixon
Oct 1, 2012 09:26 UTC

Solving the euro crisis is a race against time. Can peripheral economies reform before the people buckle under the pressure of austerity and pull the rug from their politicians? After two months of optimism triggered by the European Central Bank’s plans to buy government bonds, investors got a touch of jitters last week.

The best current fear gauge is the Spanish 10-year government bond yield. After peaking at 7.64 percent in late July, it fell to 5.65 percent in early September. It then poked its head above 6 percent in the middle of last week because there were large demonstrations against austerity; because Mariano Rajoy’s government was dragging its heels over asking for help from the ECB; and because the prime minister of Catalonia, one of Spain’s largest and richest regions, said he would call a referendum on independence.

But by the end of the week, the yield was just below 6 percent again. That’s mainly because Rajoy came up with a new budget which contains further doses of austerity. The move prepares the way for Madrid to ask for the ECB to buy its bonds and so drive down its borrowing costs.

Confidence tricks for the euro zone

Hugo Dixon
Jul 23, 2012 09:31 UTC

The euro crisis is to a great extent a confidence crisis. Sure, there are big underlying problems such as excessive debt and lack of competitiveness in the peripheral economies. But these can be addressed and, to some extent, this is happening already. Meanwhile, a quick fix for the confidence crisis is needed.

The harsh medicine of reform is required but is undermining confidence on multiple levels. Businesses, bankers, ordinary citizens and politicians are losing faith in both the immediate economic future and the whole single-currency project. That is creating interconnected vicious spirals.

The twin epicentres of the crisis are Spain and Italy. The boost they received from last month’s euro zone summit has been more than wiped out. Spanish 10-year bond yields equalled their euro-era record of 7.3 percent on July 20; Italy’s had also rebounded to a slightly less terrifying but still worrying 6.2 percent.

Successful summit didn’t solve crisis

Hugo Dixon
Jul 2, 2012 09:27 UTC

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí. “Upon waking, the dinosaur was still there.”

This extremely short story by Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso sums up the state of play on the euro crisis. Last week’s summit took important steps to stop the immediate panic. But the big economies of Italy and Spain are shrinking and there is no agreed long-term vision for the zone. In other words, the crisis is still there.

The summit’s decisions are not to be sniffed at. The agreement that the euro zone’s bailout fund should, in time, be able to recapitalise banks directly rather than via national governments will help break the so-called doom loop binding troubled lenders and troubled governments. That is a shot in the arm for both Spain and Ireland. Meanwhile, unleashing the bailout fund to stabilise sovereign bond markets could stop Rome’s and Madrid’s bond yields rising to unsustainable levels.